Rising from Crisis: Responding to the Pandemic (1)

Five people wearing masks outside standing around big cardboard box
BSGI representatives presenting face shields to a hospital in Rio de Janeiro [© Seikyo Shimbun]

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Soka Gakkai organizations worldwide, which are striving to create value from this challenge. As Soka Gakkai President Harada has remarked, “We are determined that our hopeful, revitalizing philosophy of ‘changing poison into medicine,’ which teaches that even the darkest and most desperate of times can contain the seeds of new learning and possibility, will help strengthen humanity’s indomitable network of global citizens.”

This is the first of two articles compiled from the Rising from Crisis series published on the Soka Gakkai (global) Facebook page, giving an overview of how Soka Gakkai organizations are responding to the pandemic.

COVID-19’s Social Impact

Sek Soon Heng (women’s leader, Singapore Soka Association): Although this is a difficult time, initiatives by various organizations to reach out to vulnerable groups have sparked positive energy to do good and offer mutual support in order to get through this challenge together in Singapore.

Sek Soon Heng [© Seikyo Shimbun]

It has had a psychological impact such as increasing stress and anxiety in families caused by looking after the elderly as well as young children at home, as working families now spend more time confined at home together. For members who work from home, there have been challenges in balancing their work demands, domestic responsibilities and their children’s repeated requests for help when they face issues with their home-based learning.

We currently have about one hundred members working as professional medical practitioners such as doctors and nurses, and many more as health care assistants, swab test assistants and administrators in the fight against COVID-19. They are all working extremely hard, stretching themselves over long hours on the front line with strong determination to win over this health crisis.

Vishesh Gupta (chairperson, Bharat [India] Soka Gakkai): The economic impact has been severe, forcing more than a quarter of the workforce out of their jobs. Millions of migrant workers had a lot of problems going back from the cities to their villages during the lockdown because they didn’t have money to buy food, they didn’t have the transport. Many of them traveled on foot till the government started making arrangements.

Vishesh Gupta [© Seikyo Shimbun]

We have seen a rise in domestic violence and other problems due to prolonged confinement at home, increased unemployment and a sense of uncertainty about the future. And this may be a uniquely Indian situation, but most families in the middle class and above usually rely on domestic help, and they are now being forced to take care of household work themselves because of the lockdown. The unfamiliar burden is among the causes of domestic discord. Being stuck in their homes is increasing worry and anxiety for many, often leading to more severe forms of anxiety and depression.

In these times, when society as a whole is experiencing such a difficult situation, we of Bharat Soka Gakkai are exerting ourselves to spread hope and extend encouragement through various activities and campaigns with the motto “I am invincible.”

Indian society is going through major social and economic damage, which is likely to escalate going forward. That is exactly why it is crucially important to encourage and take care of our friends and fellow members with sincerity and compassion based on the writings of Nichiren and President Daisaku Ikeda’s guidance.

Alberto Aprea [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Alberto Aprea (president, Soka Gakkai Italy): Everyone is struggling with the fear of infection and an uncertain future. As soon as the government introduced the emergency measures on February 23, 2020, we canceled all meetings and activities. We also closed all community centers and stopped home visits. At that stage, the new coronavirus had only affected some regions while others still had no one infected. But we chose to take the same measures nationwide, to put the lives of the public and members first. The fact that we were among the first religious groups in the country to respond in this way was taken up by the media. Prime Minister Conte expressed admiration for our humanistic action, solidarity and sense of responsibility.

On the Pandemic’s Organizational Impact

Helen Izumi-Choi (women’s leader, SGI-Canada): President Ikeda dedicated to Canadian members the poem titled “A Rainbow over Niagara” in 1987, in which he writes:

“You must treasure each and every friend, / No matter what, / For everyone has his or her own supreme mission; / By working together we cultivate and / Bring it to fruition – / This is the formula for our advancement.”

Helen Izumi-Choi [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Our determination has been to reach out and wholeheartedly encourage each and every person, to ensure that everyone advances together and make sure no one is left behind, knowing that many have been feeling anxious and isolated.

We have been fully utilizing online platforms to hold meetings. Since Canada is such a vast country, we had already been holding certain types of meetings online well before the pandemic started. We have tried our best to transcend physical limitations by strengthening and deepening our bonds of friendship, care and compassion through every means possible. We have created countless “treasures of the heart” with one another, with many guests attending our online meetings, and there are now new members joining.

Justine Merchant (women’s leader, SGI-UK): We have learned that we can’t be stopped and won’t be defeated! We have also seen people such as mothers of young children return to meetings, sharing that they’ve been able to access meetings more easily than before. Some are working mothers juggling homeschooling and online work from home. I am deeply moved by the efforts of these dignified, extraordinary women who are using this time to deepen their faith.

Many members are expressing deep appreciation for finding ways to feel and be connected. However, not everyone enjoys or has access to this approach, so phone calls and messages are also vital. We are constantly finding creative and safe ways to encourage one another.

Soka Gakkai Members’ Experiences

Meiry Hirano [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Meiry Hirano (women’s leader, Brazil Soka Gakkai International): We are witnessing a number of experiences from members who have been able to surmount their tough situations. A leader who runs a family business of garment manufacturing and had also worked for a company for 15 years had all his orders in the family business canceled and was also fired from the company due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

His entire family prayed earnestly and decided to manufacture face masks, as a mask shortage was becoming a problem. He began to receive orders from around the country and has now hired three employees. This has not only enabled him to transform this crisis into an opportunity but also to make a contribution to his community and society at large. With a sense of gratitude, he is exerting himself to encourage his fellow members.

Many members, especially the women, are fighting wholeheartedly to care for COVID-19 patients as doctors and nurses, embracing the Soka Gakkai’s philosophy of valuing the dignity of life. We are fervently praying every day for the safety and excellent health of these frontline workers.

Usanee Kulintornprasert [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Usanee Kulintornprasert (women’s leader, Soka Gakkai Thailand ): A member who runs hotels and a travel agency has had little income since February due to the pandemic, and she was forced to shut down or temporarily close her businesses. Determined that she had only prayer to rely on now, she fervently chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo and did everything she could to improve the situation. As a result, her hotels were selected as accommodation for the two-week quarantine of Thai citizens returning from overseas, with more than eight hundred rooms used for this purpose. She was able make a contribution to the government’s prevention efforts and be protected financially at the same time.

Another woman, who runs restaurants, used her ingenuity to find a way out of the crisis by starting a meal delivery service.

Nereo Ordaz Anzurez (general director, Soka Gakkai of Mexico): Many of our members are exerting themselves based on faith in healthcare and other sectors of society. One member completed her studies in nursing in December 2019, and, at the beginning of the pandemic, she was placed in the position to receive COVID-19 patients for hospitalization. She put her training as a behind-the-scenes volunteer for Soka Gakkai activities into practice in her work, and her cheerful and humane treatment was recognized in a local newscast.

Nereo Ordaz Anzurez [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Another member who owns a restaurant faced a financial crisis as she was not able to offer food service due to the pandemic. She used wisdom based on her Buddhist practice and began selling fruits and vegetables to neighbors in the community, delivering to their homes and doing grocery shopping for the elderly. Her efforts transformed her financial situation, enabling her to keep all the jobs for her employees.

We have other professional members such as psychologists and lawyers who offer their service free of charge to people in need, as well as business owners who produce masks and antibacterial gel and donate them to hospitals. All our members are taking action wherever they are to help people in their community, for the sake of society.

Making Sense of the Pandemic

Justine Merchant [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Justine Merchant (women’s leader, SGI-UK): This really is an unprecedented challenge. The suffering is devastating and seems to continue ceaselessly. A philosophy of hope is keenly needed now. Has there ever been a clearer moment when “respect for the dignity of life” as the foundation of all areas of society is required? By developing a solidarity rooted in human revolution—a self-motivated inner change—and establishing respect for the dignity of life as the guiding principle in every field of society, we can create “the Buddha land”—a peaceful world leading all people to happiness.

We can’t all do everything, but we can each do something, making our own unique contribution to society in the place and way only we can.

My determination for the future is to continue to work for peace together with my fellow members and to live in a world where respect for the dignity of life drives decision-making in every field of society so that all people can live wise, happy, strong lives in stewardship of our precious planet.

Usanee Kulintornprasert (women’s leader, Soka Gakkai Thailand): The novel coronavirus pandemic is an overwhelming catastrophe confronting the whole of humanity, and many people are losing a sense of hope. At this time, I am deeply engraving in my life once more this passage from Nichiren’s writings, “When great evil occurs, great good follows.” Clearly, this teaching does not mean that something good will automatically follow something bad. Nichiren Daishonin is trying to show us that any suffering can certainly be transformed into something meaningful and into great good. I think he is assuring us here that with strong faith, we can change poison into medicine in any situation.

Enrique Caputo [© Seikyo Shimbun]

Enrique Caputo (general director, Soka Gakkai of Spain): The key to triumph in life and the creation of peace lies in standing up resolutely at the crucial moment, a time of unprecedented difficulty such as the present, and striving in accordance with President Ikeda’s guidance. So I try to keep this attitude and share it with my fellow members. In a crisis, we can tell the true value of an individual or a group from how they behave and what kind of message they convey to the public. We of the Soka Gakkai of Spain are determined to expand the solidarity of hope and encouragement in society, upholding Buddhist humanism and President Ikeda’s philosophy of human revolution—the power of individual transformation to affect societal change.

The Rising from Crisis Facebook series was based on a series of interviews with leaders of various Soka Gakkai organizations around the world carried out over the course of 2020 and published in Japanese in the Seikyo Shimbun, the Soka Gakkai’s newspaper.